After the fever: Placing Singapore in the post-pandemic world

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

Chong Ja IanHarvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar 2019-2020, considers the external political environment that Singapore will face in light of the pandemic.

As Singapore grapples with increasing COVID-19 infections and their consequences, a post-pandemic world awaits. This environment will differ from the one we all left behind in 2019 and the shifts will not only be economic. They are also political and will occur on a global scale. Singapore will need to contend with and adjust to these changes. Small physical size and dependence on international commerce means that Singapore has an overriding incentive to be sensitive toward the transformation unfolding externally. Here I try to sketch out some key dynamics I think are worth considering, bearing in mind the fluidity of the present situation and the limitations this imposes on greater precision.

One thing that will not change as a result of the pandemic is the importance of politics. So long as human society persists, people need to figure out how to live with each other and make decisions that affect matters of common interest. This includes ways to address disagreement and contention. If the mutual blame for the global public health crisis between China and the United States is any indication, major power rivalry looks set to continue and even grow. Rather than diminish, extant tensions within international organizations and friction over disputes will very possibly intensify.

Institutions interrupted

The Palais des Nations in Geneva. Institutions built around international cooperation, such as the United Nations, tend to bolster the position of smaller actors—but the global pandemic will see them take a hit. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Global institutions, already strained by divergent major power preferences before the pandemic, risk greater disarray. Stuck between heightened distrust, intensified major power attempts to influence processes, and increased nationalism among states, bodies like the WTO and WHO will keep struggling for effectiveness. Complications extend to other international bodies as well. Right before the pandemic became global, Beijing and Washington already had a standoff over the leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization. With the Permanent 5 distracted by COVID-19 and facing fissures, the United Nations Security Council has remained remarkably quiet throughout the crisis so far.

Closer to home, ASEAN may find meaningful collective outcomes and commitments even harder to attain and implement than before. The grouping already has a mixed record for sustained cooperation over difficult issues, even if it had some capacity for immediate crisis response. Reliance on consensus decision-making, insistence on non-interference, and prioritizing state autonomy hampered past attempts to address longstanding issues like transboundary haze, crime, refugee flows, and management of territorial disputes. Absent critical reforms, ASEAN efforts to handle the pandemic and its aftermath will be limited given resource constraints and heightened transparency demands.

Singapore has always needed global and regional institutions, even if they often operate out-of-sight and out-of-mind for most Singaporeans. The WTO, UNCLOS, and the ICJ provide rules of the road that reduce the occurrence of disputes, as well as mechanisms for coping with (or even resolving) them without a need for force, and at lower cost. ASEAN provides a forum for discussion as well as a platform to amplify Singapore’s voice. Despite deep reservations and ambivalence in Singapore toward these institutions and their reform, they can and do compensate for limitations smaller actors face. Their post-pandemic dysfunction will make the external environment even more challenging at what is already sure to be a tumultuous time.

Contention continued

A Vietnamese fishing boat. Disputes in the region have continued during the pandemic, including allegations that Chinese ships sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Longstanding tensions will most likely endure and with far less restraint than before. Even as the world focused on battling COVID-19, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan scrambled their militaries in response to Chinese military activity in disputed areas. Concurrently, Chinese ships faced off against Indonesian and Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters in separate parts of the South China Sea, leading to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. Recent news reports describe a stand-off between Malaysian and Chinese vessels. American military aircraft and ships traversed the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate continued and active forward presence in an area China asserts as its own. Unabated and amplified regional friction raises the potential for disruption and even conflict at an uncertain time.

State-driven disinformation, cyber security concerns, and popular prejudices have seen greater prominence with the onset of the public health crisis. They include state-affiliated channels promulgating unverified claims about the origin of the novel coronavirus, treatments, and handling of patients. Hacking of key information systems has not abated. Fear and insecurity from the pandemic fuel racism and other forms of discrimination around the world, from Europe and the Americas to Asia. Singapore too is seeing a rise in discriminatory views toward migrants. These developments exacerbate suspicions and cleavages, making cooperation among states more difficult, and antagonism more probable.

Navigating contestation in the post-pandemic world will not be easy for Singapore, even if many of the disputes originate from much earlier and Singapore is party to none of them. The “not choosing sides” approach is more difficult to sustain as lines for cooperation and contention have shifted and will continue to change quickly. Any middle path left is only going to get narrower, steeper, and more twisted, given sharper US-China rivalry and global economic decoupling. Short of stronger international institutions and more robust regional relationships, Singapore could encounter the type of constrained and quasi-isolated external setting that Taiwan has been dealing with over the years.

Charting course

With weakened international institutions and more heated major power rivalries, it is timely to reframe Singapore’s external strategy. Considerations should include identifying key outside partners and consolidating these relationships. Singapore can then work with like-minded actors to compensate for its small relative size, and look for ways to bolster the types of institutions that sufficiently restrain major power excesses while offering voice opportunities to safeguard our interests. To do so, however, Singaporeans first need common recognition of our shared priorities and how to debate them. This, in turn, requires an open and honest conversation about the nature of our polity and politics.

Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be long and almost certainly difficult, as old problems intensify and new ones arise. Grasping the politics and getting them right can reduce some of the related complications. The unprecedented and pervasive nature of this crisis means that Singapore can ill-afford politics as usual, whether externally or, for that matter, internally (a theme I explore in a later piece). Facing the challenges ahead requires sensitivity to new and evolving circumstances, as well as a clearer sense of the values that ground our polity and society. Singapore will have to test that nimbleness and ability to take the long view that we like to take pride in, while discarding approaches that may be familiar but are no longer useful—and hope we are not found wanting.

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